Colonial America

The First Thanksgiving was not a scam!

Posted on November 20, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.

So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:

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The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in London in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year, but the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

That one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

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The hype around the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving only began after 1863, when historians noted the tradition of impromptu thanksgivings in the 1600s and made an unwarranted and improper connection to the new holiday to make it seem less new and more traditionally American. Before then, their many days of thanksgiving and fasting were completely forgotten. The Pilgrims certainly weren’t the inspiration for the holiday we celebrate today—they were retroactively brought into that in the worst, most ironic way: after the Civil War, southerners resented Thanksgiving as a “Union” holiday celebrating U.S. victories in the war and so the focus was changed from fighting slavery to the Pilgrims. It’s bitterly ironic because now people use Thanksgiving as a time to criticize white treatment of Indians when they should be celebrating our nation’s commitment to winning a war to end slavery.

This year, feel free to enjoy this Thanksgiving and share the truth about the Pilgrims and where the holiday really comes from—the depths of a terrible war fought for the greatest of causes. Let Thanksgiving inspire you to stand up for the founding principles of this nation and re-commit to upholding them in your own daily life of good times and bad.

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Christmas in Puritan New England, or not

Posted on December 19, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America | Tags: , , , , |

In December we think of Christmas and the ever-evolving forms of celebration of that holiday in America. And being the HP, we think of the very long period over which Christmas was not celebrated in New England.

The Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans, the two English groups who settled what is now New England, did not celebrate Christmas because they did not celebrate any holidays, because they believed that every day was given by God, and so every day was holy. It was humans who picked and chose certain days to be better than the rest, thus impugning God’s holy creation by identifying some days as unimportant and boring. Holidays were the creation of humans, not God, and an insult to God in more ways than one: not only was the creation of holidays a disparagement of other days, but the usual form of celebrating holidays in England was a disparagement of morality. Religious holidays in Europe were times of drunkenness, gaming, gambling, dancing, and licentiousness, and as a major Christian holiday, Christmas involved high levels of all these things—let’s just say there were a lot of babies born the next September. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas,” wrote the reformist Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer in the mid-1500s, “than in all the 12 months besides.”

While they lived in England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans withdrew from Christmas celebrations, conspicuous by their absence from the raucous partying in the streets. When they removed to America, both groups took great pleasure in putting an end to the observance of holidays, Christmas in particular. Both groups observed many special days, either of thanksgiving or fasting. When something particularly good happened, a thanksgiving was held. This involved a church service and then a special dinner at home or in groups (see Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving for more). When danger threatened, or something bad happened, a fast was held. This involved a day of church services preceded by fasting, which meant not eating and even refraining from sex the night before. (Puritans knew that nothing humbled people like hunger and celibacy.) No other special days were observed.

So December 25 was just like any other day for the Pilgrims and Puritans. If it was a Sunday, you’d go to church and perhaps hear a sermon that referenced Jesus’ birth. If it was a Tuesday, you got up and went to work as usual. In Plimoth, where the Separatist Pilgrims were outnumbered by unreformed Anglicans, Governor Bradford had a hard time stopping the Anglicans from celebrating Christmas. The Anglicans would not learn from the example of the Separatists, who were hard at work on Christmas day 1621. Here is Bradford’s good-humored account of a run-in he had with unreformed celebrants that day (he refers to himself in the third person here as “the Governor”):

“And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. One the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of [Christmas a] matter of devotion, let them keep [to] their houses, but there should be no gaming or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.” [Of Plymouth Plantation, 107]

When the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed the Pilgrim Plimoth Colony into itself, and Massachusetts came under direct royal control in 1681 (losing its political independence), the Anglican governor assigned to the colony brought back Christmas celebrations. In 1686, when King James II created the Dominion of New England, composed of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey, and designed specifically to destroy Puritan political independence and religious identity, the royal governor James chose, Edmund Andros, was bitterly resented by all his new subjects. When Andros went to church to celebrate Christmas in Boston in 1686 he needed an armed escort to protect him.

Now Christmas was associated with royal dictatorship and all the grief of the Dominion, and the people of New England and especially Massachusetts continued to boycott the holiday well into the 18th century. When the Revolutionary War began, Christmas boycotts rose in popularity as the day was again tied to royal control and tyranny. After the war, Congress met on Christmas Day, businesses were open, and while private celebrations were not uncommon, there was no official recognition of Christmas in New England. In fact, no state recognized Christmas as an official holiday until Alabama took the plunge in 1836. President Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870, and that was about the time that New England at last gave up the remnants of its ancient resistance. (Readers of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott began to write in Concord, MA in 1868, will remember that while the Marches celebrate Christmas with gusto as well as reverence, Amy March is able to go to a store first thing Christmas morning to exchange a gift, revealing that Christmas was still a day of business in Massachusetts at that late date.)

It’s ironic, given this history, that the winter scenes created by Massachusetts-based lithographers Currier and Ives became the template for “a traditional New England Christmas” in the 1870s, complete with one-horse open sleighs and jingle bells. Sleigh rides, roasting chestnuts, spiced apple cider—all these Christmas traditions originated in New England, but they were not specific to Christmas when New Englanders enjoyed them in the 18th century. They were just part of winter. Even the “traditional” white Christmas relies on a cold northern winter, a defining characteristic of the region.

Today, there are still branches of Protestantism that look down on “the observance of days”, and urge that all days be seen as equally holy and important. But Christmas is here to stay… for the foreseeable future, anyway.

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The End of Witchcraft Trials in New England

Posted on October 1, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our short series on the practical whys and wherefores of witchcraft cases in Puritan New England ends with a look at reasons for the decline and disappearance of these cases. Again we are relying on John Demos’ priceless book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many of our specific examples.

As Demos points out, and as we noted in part 1 of this series, one of the exacerbating factors in witchcraft accusations was close proximity: in early New England towns, the entire population lived in small houses crowding the small square, saw each other daily in a variety of roles, socialized together, worshipped and worked together, and basically could not get out of each other’s hair for one minute. If you disliked someone in town, you would not be able to avoid interacting with them every day, and, in their blunt Puritan way the person you disliked would likely barge into your yard and home whenever they wanted, sometimes just to bother you. We have seen that most people accused of witchcraft were difficult people who demanded favors, gifts, and intimacy from those around them, giving nothing back in return. If a neighbor refused a gift or favor, the difficult person might curse or threaten them. Then, if by coincidence some harm befell the neighbor, the difficult person would fall under suspicion of having used witchcraft to make good their threats.

So if witchcraft accusations were provoked in some part by too-close proximity, it makes sense that once New England had expanded enough to conquer its frontier, and it was safer and less laborious to start new towns, two things happened to slow witchcraft accusations: towns began to grow, and people began to move more often. As Demos puts it:

“Eventually witchcraft would disappear as a matter of formal proceedings. This last part of the sequence is extremely hard to analyze from a distance of three centuries; perhaps, however, one key factor was a certain loosening of the social tissues themselves.  …The growth and dispersion of the local populace, a somewhat broadened range of economic activity, an increasingly firm system of social stratification: these interlocking trends seem gradually to have modified the tensions amid which witchcraft had flourished.” (371)

If the average town goes from 150 people to 1,000, you are less likely to constantly deal with the same people each day, and your neighbor is less likely to focus his full attention on you 24 hours a day simply because there are more people to be interested in. Your neighbor is also less likely to also be your tax collector, fence inspector, pew-fellow, midwife, cattle-driver, etc. A small number of intensely intimate relationships are replaced by many more casual ones.

When Demos talks about loosening of the social tissues, remember that the Puritans were dedicated to the principle of mutual watch: the loving oversight of their community. This meant playing a role in the spiritual lives of your community, and welcoming your community’s involvement in your own spiritual life. Puritans worshipped, prayed, and debated together on a regular, almost daily basis, and their ideal was to work out all conflicts through loving negotiation. Ideally, no matter would ever have to go to court. Many times, when a problem did go to court—including witchcraft cases—it was sent back to the town by the judge with a recommendation that the problem be solved privately, by the interested parties, through prayer, negotiation, and applied goodwill. Ministers, deacons, and especially godly church members were on constant call to mediate conflicts, and were successful far more often than might be expected.

As towns grew, and people knew each other less well, mutual watch became difficult and then impossible to carry out. Just as a growing population meant less intimate, less frequent contact between townspeople, so too it meant less conviction that the community was bound, or able, to mediate conflicts. And larger, more mobile populations meant fewer personal problems between individuals had the chance to fester and grow. Problems went directly to court and were settled there. This meant that the weeks, months, or even years of private tension over a suspected witch, and the weeks, months, or years of attempted mediation and accumulated anxiety and bad feeling were done away with. Without that long history of conflict, fewer accusations of witchcraft were made. Without that long history of conflict to produce dozens of witnesses for and against the accused, those witchcraft cases that did go to court were weaker and taken less seriously. It was easier to see the case as the result of a personal conflict. The wind was taken out of the sails of witchcraft.

So we see that by the end of the 17th century, a century of intense population growth in New England, witchcraft cases are dwindling to nothing. In fact, after the Salem witch trials in 1692, there were “no more executions, no convictions, indeed no actual indictments” related to witchcraft in any New England court. (Demos 387) We talked in part 2 about why Salem, the largest witch trials, happened as witchcraft trials themselves were dying away. Here we want to focus on its aftermath. The hysteria at Salem deeply shocked and shamed New Englanders, who saw government go off the rails, replaced by accusation and panic, and they were embarrassed to think of how they looked to the outside world. The Age of Reason was influencing how people thought about natural and unnatural phenomena, even New England Puritans.

Thomas Brattle is a good example of this. Brattle lived in the town of Cambridge and wrote a letter to a friend about the events in Salem just as they were ending, in October 1692. Brattle’s account of the way the trials were conducted is a powerful example of a good Puritan completely rejecting the irrationality of the Salem trials:

“First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fit. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, though not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fits. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, though of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft.

…I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. [This] Salem philosophy, some men may call the  new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fit to be named in a land of such light as New-England is… In the mean time, I think we must [be] thankful to God for it, that all men are not thus bereft of their senses; but that we have here and there considerate and thinking men, who will not thus be imposed upon…

What will be the issue of these troubles, God only knows; I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land. I pray God pity us, humble us, forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress.”

Puritans had always treasured reason. They believed it was God’s greatest gift (after saving grace), given to humans to allow them to comprehend God’s creation and to seek to understand God’s will. Their legal code was a model of reason. As the 17th century drew to a close, Puritans began to doubt that their courts should be hearing witchcraft cases. Like Thomas Brattle, they felt there was no way for a judge to ” discover witchcraft” because witchcraft was supernatural—it could not be addressed in a human court: witchcraft was “that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion.” Most Puritans felt the same, and witchcraft accusations were handled privately after Salem.

They were handled privately because witchcraft accusations didn’t disappear after Salem; they dwindled, and  they entered the realm of ambiguity. “Witchcraft was hard to square with ‘enlightened’ standards and values, yet it could not be dismissed entirely” [Demos 387], and in this state of limbo witchcraft accusations were reduced to the status of gossip and private fulminations and, eventually, legend. Ministers reported strange cases that alarmed them, but never led them to publicly reveal the suspected culprits. Almost every little town seemed to have a local witch who fueled gossip and folklore but was mostly left in peace. “The figure of the witch was effectively scaled down, so as to shrink the elements of death-dealing power, and to emphasize those of sheer eccentricity. …The harm attributed to witchcraft was confined more and more to routine domestic mishap, nightmares, and simple ‘mischief’… such elements had always been part of the witch’s maleficium, but now they were virtually the whole of it.” [Demos 390]

Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases. By the 1700s, that skepticism was complete. 1630-1700 is a pretty brief window for witchcraft, and since we see that witchcraft cases really began in Puritan New England in the mid-1640s and ended after 1692, the window is even briefer. It is odd, therefore, that Puritan New England is so identified with witch trials and witch hunts. Poor Thomas Brattle was right, it seems, to fear that “ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.” Americans love to reproach the Puritans with their “witch mania”, unfair though that accusation may be, given that English colonists throughout North America believed just as firmly in witches. If only there had been a Salem in Virginia, another anomaly that drew attention away from its laser focus on Massachusetts, we might have a better general understanding of the role of witchcraft belief in the early modern western world.

As it is, we will leave off here feeling we’ve done our small part to set the record straight.

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Puritans and Witchcraft: more method, less madness

Posted on September 18, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

John Demos’ invaluable book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England is a worthy read for anyone seeking scientific analysis of witchcraft amongst the Puritans—not just trials and executions, but the daily lived experience of witchcraft. It is a mark of the book’s soundness, in some ways, that it does not discuss the Salem Witch Trials (they are mentioned in passing a few times). This confirms our opinion that the Salem trials were an anomaly in New England, and tell us about the Puritans’ experience and understanding of witches only by spelling out what they were not.

It is clear from Demos’ study that most 17th-century Puritans did believe that a few people around them practiced witchcraft, but the myth-busting corollary to this is that few people suspected of practicing witchcraft were actually tried, and fewer of those were convicted. It is amazing to read dozens of stories of people who were suspected of practicing witchcraft and repeatedly accused of it over many years—sometimes decades—who were never convicted in court, and who often had many public arguments over their suspected witchcraft before charges were even made against them.

The usual (though not universal) profile of a suspected witch was a middle-aged man or woman (more often a woman) with few or no children and an aggressive personality who made a habit of barging into people’s homes uninvited, demanding jobs or favors from people, and meddling or attempting to meddle with the treatment of the ill. The usual victim was an infant or child, or a woman who had recently given birth. This, Demos argues, could illustrate the difficulties for childless women or women who lived past their childbearing years in early modern society: they had no children to do chores or bring in income for them, and therefore frequently asked for favors from others; and those in menopause had no hope of having (more) children and envied women who were younger and having children, which led them to insistently barge in on women in childbirth or to demand to touch and hold infants. In a society where the average family had 5 children, to be childless or to have only one child was to stand out, and once your only child grew up and perhaps moved away, you were alone, which was difficult in a frontier situation.

The almost universal aggressiveness of suspected witches is interesting. Today we tend to think of the accused as kind and helpless old women singled out for no good reason. But the men and women accused of witchcraft were always difficult people. They complained and took people to court even more frequently than the average litigious Puritan. They called people names and spread malicious gossip. They threatened people’s livestock and livelihoods, predicting death or destruction. They made unreasonable demands on their neighbors for food, goods, and labor, and threatened illness, death, or worse when their demands were not met. Many of the couples accused of witchcraft had difficult marriages that sometimes resulted in physical abuse. A surprising number of accused witches actually boasted about their familiarity with the devil and sorcery, and while one can imagine the thrill of holding an audience spellbound with your stories about what you’ve heard the devil and his consorts do at night, one can’t imagine that this display of intimate knowledge of satanism wouldn’t come back to haunt the teller of the tales.

Demos’ book concludes with some valuable generalizations about Puritans and witchcraft that we will spell out and amplify here and in the next post. But first, we want to make our own claims, which are these:

1. Too often the Puritans of New England are singled out for studies in witchcraft. One can be forgiven for thinking that the Puritans were the only group in North America who believed in or prosecuted witches. But witchcraft was an accepted reality throughout the early modern world, and the settlers in Virginia, Maryland, and New York were just as firm in their belief in witches as the settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. New Spain was constantly battling against native American witchcraft, and the meager Christian outposts of New France were happy to keep their distance from the witchery of the native Canadians.

Indeed, we posit that the only reason New England is the witchery upon a hill is the notoriety of Salem, and if that anomaly had not taken place the number of people interested in New England witchcraft would be equal to the minuscule number of people studying witchcraft in Jamestown.

2. We tend to cut the New England Puritans far too little slack for being a pioneer people. We somehow block out the fact that most Puritans in the mid-17th century, when witchcraft claims and trials were at their height, were living in mud huts in isolated villages of about 100-150 people, wary of Indian attacks, and suffering all the hunger, fatigue, and strain of founding a frontier settlement. The houses in a new settlement were literally all in one place, lining the road through the village, and everyone was almost astoundingly interconnected: your neighbors next door were also likely sitting next to you at church; serving in the militia with you; plowing the field next to yours; hosting your son or daughter as a live-in worker; performing some task, like weaving or cattle-driving, for you; deciding the borders of your land; having their baby delivered by your wife the midwife; serving on a committee with you; etc. The list goes on and on. Such frequent, intimate contact in an already stressful frontier situation was bound to create arguments, grudges, and other conflicts. If you disliked someone and then had to endure this kind of constant presence in your life, those arguments could grow, over months or years, into more serious accusations of witchcraft. If that hated neighbor was driving your cattle and one was lost, and he didn’t apologize for it, longstanding tension could quickly escalate.

The point here is that most Puritans in the mid-1600s in New England lived in very stressful situations, and they lived in those stressful situations at a time when everyone in the western world believed in witchcraft. It is logical that they would blame witchcraft for the inevitable problems of losing livestock, suffering disease and death, failed crops, and, quite often, just a powerful sense of confusion and uncertainty.

The wonder is not that people were accused, but that so relatively few of the accused were convicted. That means that if you finally accused your neighbor of witchcraft, and testified against him in court, it was most likely that, after spending some weeks or months in prison awaiting trial, that neighbor was returned to your village, to resume life next door to you. Sometimes the neighbor would move away from an unendurable situation. But many other times, the two parties continued to live next to each other, and sometimes renewed accusations would break out.

That’s because, amazingly, people once accused of witchcraft seemed to have no fear of provoking another accusation. Even people who were tried and acquitted, sometimes very narrowly, often returned home and picked up where they left off with their aggressive, argumentative behavior, and even their claims to know all about Satan and his minions.

Next time, we’ll go further into the patterns and logic of witchcraft accusations outlined by Demos.

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Why the American Revolution is not a model for gun ownership today

Posted on May 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Historians, Politics, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Often one hears Americans on the news saying that the Second Amendment is necessary to us today because we may need to take up arms against an oppressive government in the 21st century, just as we did in 1775, and that those who anticipate doing so in the near future share the motivations of Americans during the Revolutionary War. Our thoughts on the Amendment can be found here; in this post, we will spell out why our situation in this century is not at all like that on the eve of Revolution in the 18th century, although we have the feeling this should be obvious without our intervention.

—During the Revolution, we fought a foreign government and a foreign occupation.

This is the key item to note. Granted, we overstate a little, so let’s go through it and be clear. The American colonies generally had popularly elected legislatures and royally appointed governors, so laws in the colonies came from two very different sources: representatives of the American people, and representatives of the British crown. Our experience of law was mixed. Legislatures generally made life difficult for governors who betrayed the people’s interests, especially in the realm of taxation, and so the influence of royal governors, who technically reported to no one but the king, was limited. Until, that is, the 1760s, post-French and Indian War, when London began direct rule of its colonies in North America. Parliament passed Acts (Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Tea Act, Coercive Acts) which were to be enforced without any input from legislatures. Indeed, even the governors were bypassed eventually as British soldiers were sent to America to make sure Acts were enforced. Americans who disobeyed Acts were to be sent to London for trial. This is the key moment, in the 1760s, when long-standing doubts about how much the American colonies owed to Britain were crystallized for many into clear convictions that London and Parliament did not consider Americans to be British citizens and did not grant them the rights of citizens, and were thus, through these Acts, imposing a foreign government on the American colonies. By refusing to allow American representatives in Parliament, the British government was confirming this. By sending troops to maintain order, the British government was occupying lands it believed to be hostile possessions; Americans were alien combatants.

It’s very clear that we are not remotely in that position today. Any Americans who oppose the government and/or its actions (taxation, immigration, welfare) are opposing their own government, popularly elected by their fellow Americans and even, perhaps, by they themselves. We don’t need to resort to arms to oppose our government because soldiers from another country are not in our streets and homes enforcing foreign laws. We resort to the voting booth, the referendum, and the ratification process to change or oppose our government. U.S. citizens today have rights that their government enforces and upholds—and if it doesn’t, we work through the courts and the political bodies to make it do so.

—Americans during the Revolution did not fight on their own.

They fought in their locally organized militias, which joined the Continental Army led by George Washington. They fought in the army, not as a vigilante group. Individual citizens submitted themselves and their guns to a government-authorized national army. That’s hardly what people today are picturing when they say they need guns to fight the government if it becomes oppressive. In 1775, Americans were fighting a formal war against a formal army. They weren’t sitting in their homes waiting for someone to challenge them and get blown away.

—Americans during the Revolution were fighting to keep their government alive.

Americans who fought in the Revolution were hoping to see the new government, represented by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, firmly and officially established as the government of their nation. They were not fighting to get rid of government, as so many Second Amendment fans seem to want to do today. They knew that the nation needed a strong government (though not necessarily fully centralized) to survive, and their aim was to make sure that government was fair once it was established—that’s why the Constitution was ratified by popularly elected officials, and why even common people clamored for a Bill of Rights to be added to it. Americans in the 1770s were fighting for government, not against it. They did not believe that armed individuals were a proper substitute for state and federal government.

So we have three good distinctions to draw between ourselves and our ancestors, and hopefully we can put this ridiculous argument to rest. We no longer have to use guns to maintain our freedoms; we have to use our rights as citizens to vote and participate in government to maintain our freedoms.

But what if our government becomes perverted and undemocratic, people ask? What if our political system fails? Then we’ll have to use force to protect ourselves.

it seems clear that the only way this could happen is if the American people fail in their participatory duty as citizens, so we are back to our original argument, which is that as long as we do our duty, the government we elect can never fail to be what we want it to be. It’s only by withdrawing from participation in our democracy that we lose it, and by looking for reasons to rise up in arms that we threaten ourselves with that dire possibility.

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Puritan Smackdown: Be round if you would

Posted on May 21, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

My favorite passage from John Winthrop’s diary is this, from August 3, 1632:

“After dinner the deputy [Thomas Dudley, Winthrop’s periodic rival] then demanded of him [Winthrop—he wrote about himself in the third person in his diary] the ground and limits of his authority, whether by the patent [the colony’s charter] or otherwise. The governor [Winthrop] answered that he would challenge no greater authority than he might by the patent. The deputy replied that then he had no more authority than every assistant (except power to call courts and precedency for honor and order). The governor answered he had more, for the patent making him a governor by common law or the statutes, and desired him to show wherein he had exceeded, etc.

“In speaking this somehwat apprehensively, the deputy began to be in passion and told the governor that if he were so round he would be round too. The governor bade him be round if he would. So the deputy rose up in great fury and passion and the governor grew very hot also, so as they both fell into bitterness, but by mediation of the mediators they were soon pacified…”

So if you ever time travel back to Puritan New England in the 1630s, you’ll know what to say if you want to fight. Just bid someone be round if they would.

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When did “Puritan New England” die out?

Posted on January 3, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , |

It’s always interesting to me how long a lifespan people assign to “Puritan New England”. Of course, there are two kinds of “Puritan” being described: the days of the Puritan colonies and a set of behaviors that people who were not Puritans describe as “puritanism”. People tend to describe New England society as Puritan from 1620 to about 1950—a much longer span than is warranted by fact. The real lifespan of Puritan New England is 1630 to about 1720.

We say 1630 because the Pilgrims who arrived in North America in 1620 were not Puritans (see here for more on that); it was the group who arrived in 1630 who began Puritan colonization. The colonies founded by these Puritans were based on the religious practice of Congregationalism, and this meant three things that are the main characteristics of Puritan New England: 1) the colonies thrived on and required religious homogeneity; 2) a proto-democratic political system was necessary to protect the unique society created in America; and thus 3) the colonists devoted themselves to evading direct rule from England in order to maintain that political system. For as long as these three characteristics were unchallenged, Puritan New England existed.

How long was that? Not very long. The aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-6) brought political discord between the Puritan colonies, which brought on direct rule from England, first in the form of the Dominion of New England (1686-9), during which time the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were restructured into one mega-colony (along with New York and East and West Jersey). It’s important that during the Dominion the Puritans were enraged not just by the promotion of Anglicanism over Congregationalism but also by the destruction of the Puritan legal and political system: legislatures were no longer popularly elected, land titles were revoked, and a royal court with no jury was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts.

The Dominion was overthrown after the death of King James II, but English direct rule did not end. The Puritans who had overthrown the Dominion immediately pledged their loyalty to the new king and queen, William and Mary, and William opened the Puritan colonies to outsiders. Non-Puritans began settling in New England in large numbers, and their religious practices were protected. By 1691, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter was overthrown and it became a royal colony with a royally appointed governer, true Congregationalism was rapidly becoming a blast from the past. Its dominance was certainly at an end, as it became simply one religion amongst many others.

Of course, it took decades to completely unseat the old religious ways. But an important shift was occurring after 1689: all of the fervor originally associated primarily with religion in Puritan New England was being gradually but steadily transferred to politics. Note that the Dominion and the charter revocation dealt a fatal blow to pure Congregational practice but strengthened the old Puritan political dogma. What the people of New England held on to was proto-democracy: a popularly elected legislature, juries made up of local citizens, and the right of towns to hold their political town meetings. As the old religion which had originally demanded these political protections faded away, the politics  themselves became a religion for New Englanders.

So by roughly 1720-30 the shift was fairly complete. New England was no longer Puritan, it was polyglot with a Puritan past and a powerful Puritan legacy that newcomers and non-Puritans were very aware of. Politics was the new religion, and New England would lead the way into the age of Revolution.

The echoes of the old way, the true Puritan New England that only existed from 1630-1686, were heard long after the fact, of course, and it may be the very brevity of the actual Puritan moment that made it so powerful an image for later writers, religious leaders, politicians, and historians. But any reference to “Puritan New England” after 1730 at the latest, and 1720 more likely, is mostly inaccurate.

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The Boston Tea Party: what does it mean today?

Posted on December 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , |

Part the last of our series on the Boston Tea Party considers its legacy in U.S. history, memory, and mind. With the rise of the Tea Party political party after the 2008 presidential election, this question of the meaning of the original act of protest is particularly important.

We’ve seen in this series that the original Tea Party (which was not called by that name, incidentally, until decades after the fact) sprang from a complicated and not very appealing tradition of using physical violence to achieve political goals. The governor of Massachusetts himself, Thomas Hutchinson, was forced to flee for his life with his wife and children in 1765 when a mob destroyed his home—literally ripping it to pieces—in protest of the Stamp Act.  The men of Boston who supported the Body of the People carried out many attacks on tea commissioner’s homes, families, and persons in the months before the  night of the Tea Party, attacks which we cannot approve of today. Using violence to get people to do what you want, especially in the name of justice, is the polar opposite of democracy, the representative democracy the U.S. is founded on. None of us would want to see mobs of people burning down the homes and businesses of people whose policies they didn’t approve of.

But we also see that patriot leaders in Boston realized that mob violence was not a long-term solution to Americans’ problems with British rule, and that it would not work as a political tool. Men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock knew that their goal—democratic self-rule—had to be based on civil political debate, freedom of conscience and speech, and rule of law. A war would have to be fought, perhaps, to gain independence, but after that rule of law must win the day.

That’s why the men who rallied the common people to protest were not the ones who ended up drafting the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. John Adams, not Samuel Adams; Thomas Jefferson, not Paul Revere: the men who enshrined rule of law through representative democracy were ones untainted by association with violence (except for John Hancock, an exception which proves the rule). So we can think of the Tea Party as the last act of colonial mob violence before the inauguration of the era of American democracy.

Today the Tea Party has become a synonym for “no taxes”, but we have seen that the protest against the tea was not a protest against the principle of taxation. It was a protest against a) taxation without representation, and b) taxes levied simply to fund government, with no benefits accruing to the people being taxed. No one wants to pay taxes that go only to fund the office of tax collection. Taxes are meant to better society, to provide services to those who can’t afford them on their own, not to entrench the government’s power to tax. The men who organized the Tea Party, the men who carried out the destruction of the tea, the women who boycotted tea even when they considered it vital to their families’ health all did so to establish the ideal of taxation for the general welfare. Warping that democratic goal by saying that all of those people actually wanted no taxation, that they didn’t want their money going to anyone else no matter what, is a cynical and unacceptable lie.

Let’s remember the Tea Party as it was: a gauntlet thrown down to set in motion the necessary violence of a war for independence that would, if successful, create a society where violence had no part in politics, and taxation represented a bit of freedom and justice for all.

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What happened at the Boston Tea Party?

Posted on November 29, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: |

Part 4 of our series on the Boston Tea Party examines the protest itself. We looked last time at the tradition of violence in Boston, which would lead us—and people at the time—to believe that the final protest against the tea waiting in Boston Harbor to be unloaded according to the terms of the Tea Act would be bloody. The people of Boston were exasperated by their battles with the British government over tea, and, as Thomas Jefferson said, “An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular.”

But the Tea Party itself was not violent. Here’s how it played out. Like our earlier posts, this one is deeply endebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (from which the Jefferson quote comes). 

Patriot protesters had developed the habit of gathering at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where they heard speeches by patriot leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They called themselves “the Body of the People”, and they had no official power over the colonial legislature but they were the real power in town. Their meetings were important for two reasons: first, they presented a powerful threat to the Loyalist governor, tax officials, and tea commissioners. Because the Body was not elected, the governor could not control it by dismissing its members. Second, the leaders of the Body realized that, if talk and diplomacy failed, the Body could continue to make public statements of diplomacy and non-violence while authorizing certain of its members to take bolder action on the side.

So the Body passed a resolution saying that “the use of Tea is improper and pernicious,” a relatively mild and impotent statement that they hoped official town meetings would honor and turn into law, thus putting pressure on Boston and the governor… while certain of its members cried out “informally” that they would haul the tea ships up from the Harbor to Boston Common and burn them right there [Carp 120]. Members of the Body cheered, but its prudent leaders did not record this sentiment in the official minutes.

Thus when the last political effort to get the tea sent back to England failed, the Body officially dropped the matter. The hundreds of men gathered in Old South heard the leaders officially abandon the attempt to turn back the tea. And then they began to melt away, slipping out the back exits into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the room was surprised by troops of Mohawks with axes.

Of course, these men had met amongst themselves beforehand to decide what course of action to take if the tea ships could not be turned away and sent out of the harbor. Since we cannot name many men with certainty as perpetrators of the Tea Party, it’s hard to get a lot of data on how they decided on throwing the tea into the harbor (since, as we saw, other protests were suggested, including burning the tea). But once the plan of boarding the ships and destroying the tea was hatched, things moved quickly. “They determined that it would take a few dozen men with knowledge of how to unload a ship, and so the men who signed on for the task included a mix of traders and craftsmen. Each man would disguise himself as an Indian and swear an oath of secrecy… Everyone agreed on the ground rules: no one would steal or vandalize any property except the tea itself, and not one would commit any violence or mayhem. If the destroyers worked quickly and efficiently, the job would only take two or three hours” [Carp 117].

As these men now gathered back at Old South, the Body tacitly approved what it knew was going to happen. One man remembered that the last thing he heard before heading for the wharf was  John Hancock shouting  “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!”

Once at the ships, the men worked like professionals. The commissioners occupying each ship were identified and told to leave on peril of death. They did so. One Captain Bruce asked what the men were going to do. He was told the plan and ordered below decks with his men, and told they would not be harmed. They did so. [Carp 127] Then the Mohawks expertly hauled the tea out of the holds, working very quickly considering the huge weight of the tea chests. They knocked off the bindings, smashed the chests, and threw them overboard. Despite the allure of the tea, and the price it would bring in the morning, only two men attempted to steal any. They were instantly stripped of their clothes and beaten, and sent on their way.

The men made as little noise as possible. This was not the raucous rioting of Pope’s Day or the attacks on the tea commissioners’ homes. This was business, and it had to be done and done quickly before any soldiers discovered the men. It was imperative that the tea be destroyed, because if it was not it would be unloaded the next morning and it would be impossible to stop its distribution, and then Boston would be the town that let the Patriot cause down after the successful rejections and boycotts in New York and Philadelphia.

By 8:00 or 9:00 PM, the party was over. Everyone went home quietly and followed orders to turn out their pants cuffs and socks and shoes and sweep any tea leaves gathered there into the fireplace. In all, about 92,000 pounds of tea—over 46 tons—had been destroyed [Carp 139].

Reaction was swift. The Tea Party was a complete rejection of British rule. Anything less than a severe punishment would be condoning rebellion. That punishment came in the form of the Coercive Acts: the port of Boston was closed to commercial shipping, ruining its economy; Boston was to recompense the East India Company for the total value of the lost tea; the Massachusetts Government Act set in motion the destruction of the popularly elected General Court (all positions in the colonial government would now be appointed by the king); the Administration of Justice act moved trials of government officials to other colonies or to England; and the Quartering Act made housing British soldiers mandatory for all citizens.

Boston had been acting in concert with New York and Philadelphia, but it bore the brunt of the King’s wrath all on its own. It’s no surprise, then, that the Revolution was kindled in the hearth of Massachusetts. Next time, we’ll wrap the series up with reflections on the meaning and impact of the Tea Party today.

Next time: What does the Tea Party mean today?

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The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence

Posted on November 21, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , |

Part 3 of our series on the Boston Tea Party focuses on the protest that patriots eventually carried out against the 1773 Tea Act. The actual act of dumping the tea was, in its nonviolence, unusual in Boston history.

When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends. Violence was sanctioned in odd ways in colonial Boston. “Pope’s Day” was an annual holiday, observed on November 5th, during which boys roamed the city knocking on doors and asking for money; if denied, they broke all the windows in the house. Later, older boys and men carried effigies of Satan and the pope, the two groups heading from North and South End and celebrating their meeting in the center of town with an enormous fistfight; the winning group then took the losers’ effigies and burned them.

This kind of “playful” violence was all too easy to organize into political violence. Here are just a few examples, again from Benjamin Carp’s fantastic Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America:

—August 1765: effigies of a British minister and an American stamp distributor (of the unpopular Stamp Act) were hung in the South End; at dusk the effigies were taken down by a crowd who then completely destroyed a building owned by the stamp distributor, went to the man’s house and threw rocks at the windows, broke in, and destroyed some furniture. When Governor Hutchinson tried to reason with the rioters, they threw bricks at him. The stamp distributor resigned the next day.

—June 1768: When smuggler John Hancock’s ship was held by authorities who suspected it had smuggled goods, a group of over 300 Bostonians attacked the customs officers, throwing bricks and stones at them, and then went to the house of one officer and broke all the windows.

—March 1770: a group of men and boys were throwing rocks at British soldiers who were competing with them for jobs (many soldiers moonlighted to enhance their income); this turned into the Boston Massacre when the soldiers opened fire, afraid for their lives as the crowd grew in size and malice.

—November 1771: customs officials seize a boat carrying smuggled tea; another boat comes up alongside and thirty armed men attack the customs officials with clubs, swords, and guns. They forced the British captain into the hold, where he nearly died of his wounds, while they took the tea and left, wounded men lying on the decks of two boats.

—November 1773: a crowd gathered outside the house of a man who had a commission to sell tea from the EIC, shouting and beating down his gate. The commissioner yelled at them from an upper window to leave, and fired a shot. The mob shattered all the windows of the house and were only turned away from assaulting the owner by the pleas of some patriots that there were women in the house.

Tea commissioners were routinely summoned to public meetings by anonymous letters which threatened their lives as well as their jobs if they did not show up. Commissioners and others deemed hostile to the patriot cause were tarred and feathered—the “American torture.”

When the tea that the Tea Act mandated be sold in America arrived in November 1773, the governor knew he could not protect the men commissioned to receive and sell it from the people; those commissioners (one of them an elderly man) fled to the British Fort William on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, and there they stayed for many months after the Tea Party, justly feaful of their lives.

This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.

It is certainly unsettling for modern-day Americans to read about the tactics our ancestors were ready to use when they believed themselves to be crossed. Mob violence is not something we condone today, and so much of the violence in colonial Boston seems to have been based not in righteous anger but in personal habit and popular tradition that it’s hard to see it as truly patriotic.

Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform,  disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence. The Tea Party would be a triumph of this difficult position.

Next time: planning the Tea Party

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